Winspear stumbles a bit in new World War I novel

"The Care and Management of Lies"  by Jacqueline Winspear

Even a great author can be stymied by the Great War.

As she has proven in her Maisie Dobbs mysteries, Jacqueline Winspear is one of our best. In these eloquent, melancholy books set in England between the wars, she has adapted the detective format artfully to depict the social upheaval and physical and psychological damage World War I left in its wake.

In the Maisie series, the Great War is both cause and memory. In Winspear’s new, stand-alone novel, The Care and Management of Lies, however, it is center stage — and it overwhelms the actors around it.

The shame is that the book’s central conceit — a wife who tries to comfort her soldier husband with well-intended lies — is beautifully imagined and executed. It’s the attempts to extend the book’s reach to political clashes and French battlefields that cause the story to falter, and ultimately crash.

Lies is built around a trio linked by love and, at times, jealousy: Kezia, a well-educated pastor’s daughter; Thea, Kezia’s best friend; and Tom, Thea’s brother, who runs his family’s small farm. Thea should be thrilled to see her best friend and her brother fall in love and marry, but instead she feels angry and left out. Worse, her isolation is intensified by the difference between her life in London as a suffragette and Kezia’s new life as a farm wife — a life Thea mocks by giving Kezia (in one Winspear’s most inspired moves) an actual help-for-the-homemaker book from 1911, The Woman’s Guide.

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Kezia would not seem to be a natural fit for Tom or the farm, yet one of Winspear’s great successes is the way in which she builds the bonds between the couple and shows us Kezia adapting to her new life. Which she must do quickly, as Tom is soon called to the war, leaving Kezia to run the farm — and to lift her husband’s spirits with letters describing the meals she would cook for him if she could.

Kezia and Tom are wonderful, fully crafted characters, linked by affection and the oddly sensual nature of their correspondence. The problem is that none of the other characters come close. Thea, who occupies a good portion of the book, too often feels like a prop on which to hang whatever aspect of World War I Winspear needs to explore next, as she bounces from suffragette to pacifist to ambulance driver.

As for the other characters, they hardly register at all — with the notable exception of a sadistic sergeant straight out of the pages of Beau Geste, who registers far too strongly.

As with every Winspear novel, there is beautiful writing — and in Kezia and Tom, two characters you won’t soon forget. If you want a love story, read Lies for them and ignore much of the rest, including an end that feels coldly inevitable.

If you want a book about the Great War, however, read Max Hastings’ Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War – which is more informative, as you’d expect, and, in its story of death, stupidity and waste, more moving, which you might not expect.

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Whatever its flaws, Lies is no catastrophe. But it’s also no Catastrophe.

The Care and Management of Lies: A Novel of the Great War.

By Jacqueline Winspear.

Harper, 336 pp.

** ½ Stars out of four.

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